Cállate. /ˈka.ʎa.te/ v (command form). Language: Spanish. Meaning: SHUT UP. Not the nicest of phrases, but it sort of just slips out after fruitlessly comforting a screaming baby for an hour.
I paid close attention in middle school sex education. I take my birth control promptly at 9:00 each night. And why use just one condom when you could use three?
So it was a bit of a shock this week to find myself the stand-in mother of 20 screaming babies.
It may not be an unplanned pregnancy (or 20), but it is certainly a rude awakening. Life for an American in Europe is not a cakewalk, and to live legally in an amazing city like Barcelona, you have to find a job that dishes out the visa. Mine happens to come wrapped in bows and ribbons and soggy diapers.
I’m working 20 hours a week at a bilingual English — Spanish daycare, contracted by the multilingual education program Meddeas. Although I could have renewed my job and visa in Bilbao through the North American Language and Culture Assistant government program (check out my Q+A for that), I chose to switch to the private program of Meddeas. I was seeking a way to work specifically in Barcelona, and the government program doesn’t offer placements in the region of Catalonia.
My English “teaching” job at the Spanish daycare gives me legal papers; a small but livable salary; and the occasional outbreak of pink eye. I, in turn, provide native pronunciation when asking, “What color is this ball?” and a steady shoulder to cry or drool on. (English teacher’s pro tip: I’m allowed to end that sentence with a preposition.)
The first week, I’ve been getting to know my children. They range from 5 months to 2 years old. Some don’t speak a single word in any language; some babble off the occasional word in what is either baby nonsense or Catalan (the jury’s still out); some can say their own names and the names of their classmates.
What they can’t do, of course, is speak English.
So that’s where I come in. With exciting games like Simon Says, live concerts of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and harsh commands like “Marius, take Paul’s pacifier out of your mouth RIGHT NOW!” I will magically transfer a new language into the minds and mouths of these little guys.
Of course, it seems ridiculous. And part of it is. You can’t “teach” babies English—they hardly even know Spanish or Catalan yet! How will I explain verb endings or proper nouns to humans who’ve been around for less time than the iPhone 5S? Not to mention their attention span expires after five minutes.
I am basically a glorified babysitter.
And while I can’t argue with all the above, and my initial reaction to getting hired at a Spanish daycare was a mix of dread and horror, I’ve actually come to see the value in my work. I certainly don’t want to teach English forever, let alone to babies, but I do believe I’ll see more results this year at a daycare than I did last year working with teenagers.
That’s because ages 0–3 is the best time for learning languages. Babies’ minds are sponges, so you don’t have to explain command forms or verb order—they just get it. It’s astonishing (and heart-meltingly cute) to see some of my babies humming along with me after hearing a new song just once. They are machines. Tiny pooping knowledge-retaining language-learning machines.
So what did we do this week? No grammar lessons or “Getting To Know You” Bingo. No Beyonce songs with fill-in-the-gap lyric sheets. That’s for the major leagues.
Instead, welcome-week activities at the Spanish daycare included:
Luckily my coworkers at the Spanish daycare are wonderful, and any time I falter—or get caught stealing a cracker or two for myself—they are always there to support me, show me the ropes, or at least refrain from calling Child Support Services the first week. We’ll see if their patience lasts.
It’s still too early to tell if this job will be incredibly rewarding or the beginning of the end of my sanity. Possibly a mix of the two. There are times when I want to join in on the crying, and other times where I want to squeeze those adorably chubby cheeks for hours on end. What I can glean so far, though, is the importance of practicing safe sex.
Because no one should wind up with 20 babies.
Don’t miss the milestones—you never know when little L. will walk or when P. will shit without crying. So get future posts delivered right to your inbox! And make sure to follow A Thing For Wor(l)ds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.